World class wines and a labour of love - Rathfinny Estate
As we bundled into the car at 8.30am on the morning of Wednesday 15th July, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It had been almost a year since Emily and I had discussed making the trip to Sussex to visit Rathfinny and finally we were on our way, accompanied and chauffeured by one of The Oxford Wine Company's most faithful customers.
Chasing the blue sky and distant rays of sunshine, we eventually left the grey of the M25. Driving down into the ancient valley, the raw, exposed walls of chalk began to populate our journey - our destination was in sight. As we descended round the tight bends of the road, the open plain stretched to either side of us, framed beautifully by soft rolling hills and streams of pale morning sunlight. Suddenly ascending a long dusty, chalky track - a quick pause to admire our freedom and the open sea - we arrived at the Rathfinny Estate Cellar Door.
Rathfinny is owned by Mark and Sarah Driver, who made their fortune managing a hedge fund and working as a solicitor in the city, before deciding to follow their passion in wine. Mark trained at Plumpton College and after more than three years of searching for the right land, all the stars aligned when he discovered the farm on which the Rathfinny Wine Estate has been created. The property was purchased in 2010 and comprises about 600 acres. Currently 240 acres are under vine but not all vines are producing as some are still too young, having been planted only last year. Most of the vines were planted in 2012 and the first vintage release from Rathfinny was in 2015. A percentage of the farm is designated to 'wild country' and here there are approximately 24 Exmoor ponies roaming amongst a growing diversity in wildflowers and foliage. The farm also grows biscuit grade wheat and barley which is sold to a local brewery as well as being used for Rathfinny's grain based Seven Sisters gin.
We were greeted by Richard James, Rathfinny's Regional Sales Executive, who has a background in ecology and conservation. With excellent knowledge of the South Downs Richard was the perfect host for a Sussex newcomer, such as me.
Gazing over the vines from the hill atop the graceful picnicking areas, Richard explained why finding the location for Rathfinny has been an integral part of their speedy success to producing exceptional vintage sparkling wines.
Everything in the vineyards is done by hand (with the exception of their leaf pulling machine) and the winery is fully self-sufficient in water and energy through the installation of solar panels and a greywater recycling system. There is a very evident focus on sustainability, and decisions are made with the long-term effects on the environment and landscape at the forefront. Wildflowers grow throughout the estate, including the custom-made wildflower roof of the winery, and there are natural wind breakers from tree plantings. Plenty of butterflies and bees dance amongst us while we enjoy the refreshing salty air and soft South Westerly winds. An ecological approach to pests is taken and no fans or fires are necessary to ward off frost due to the cultivating techniques applied and the impact of the continuous winds channelling the frost along the 'frost paths'. These continuous winds along with the south facing slopes and soil quality, are important factors when it comes to disease control. Richard simply shakes his head 'we have very little concern with vine disease here' he explains, 'which is one of the reasons we have been able to commit to always and only producing single vintage wines'. Richard sings the praises of their vineyard manager Cameron, who meticulously tends to the vines. Cameron works using replacement cane pruning but has also implemented a new technique called Respecting Sap Flow Pruning. This technique's holistic approach to pruning is being adopted internationally because of its success rate in preserving vine health. Respecting Sap Flow Pruning utilizes small cuts on top of the branches, rather than cross cuts that leave more damage on the vine. Leaving more living wood on the vine provides sufficient space for sap flow to reach the spores to maintain vine vigour, improving the health and longevity of the vine.
The most challenging pest Cameron and the team have encountered are the families of badgers that live on the opposite hillside. In 2014, just 24 hours before harvest, Rathfinny lost a whole row of Pinot Noir to hungry badgers. After installing cameras they discovered that the badgers would plod through the vines in search of the more fertile soils deeper into the farm and then on their return journey rear up onto their hind legs and help themselves to a few handfuls! Richard exclaims 'we watched them walk on their hind legs along the entire row! I had no idea badgers could do that'. Bird are easily controlled by the presence of two pairs of buzzards that live on the estate and a graceful, rusty amber Kestrel, who we had the pleasure of spotting a little later, stalking her dinner.
Rathfinny have always and will always produce only vintage sparkling wines. They are pioneers of the Sussex Sparkling certification and always planned to be an international brand. Mark and Sarah's aim is for Sussex Sparkling to have the same prestigious recognition as Champagne. The project is a passion first and foremost and a business after. No expense is spared in their desire to create top quality English Sparkling wine that bubbles with the characters of its Sussex heritage. Wines of terroir! Rathfinny are located on 100% chalk soils with very little topsoil to be found anywhere in the vineyards.
Mark and Sarah are committed to involving their local community as much as possible and a high percentage of the staff are local. They have built such a fantastic relationship with the local community that they come back year on year to work the harvest and their need to search further afield for workers is non-existent. Almost everyone knows each other, and the spread of baked goods brought along for midday snacking and after work rewarding sounds heavenly! They also work with the local council and schools, hosting educational visits for students of a variety of ages.
Finally, the sun breaks through the stubborn wisps of cloud and the warmth is mesmerising. It is suddenly easy to understand how Rathfinny can produce wines with such ripe fruit characteristics whilst standing in this furrow sun trap.
When Mark and Sarah purchased the land in 2010 Mark had big visions. A decades-long business plan outlined his ambitions to produce a world-class English Sparkling Wine which would one day sit comfortably amongst the most famous Champagne brands. The winery has been built to take advantage of the gentle sloping in the landscape and so all the wine can be gravity poured during production, which is a more gentle and natural process than mechanical intervention.
Before heading to tour the winery, Richard insists we take a tour of their renovated guest accommodation, The Flint Barns. Originally designed to be a home for staff and temporary harvest workers, the barn conversion was done to such a high standard that it simply made sense to offer it as accommodation. It is beautiful. The greeting at the door is also to the highest standard! As I step over the threshold, I am greeted by the most charming Jack Russel who wags his tail with acceptance of my patting and holds out a delicate, soft paw in greeting. Emily and I exclaimed the need to find an excuse to host our next staff party in this idyllic spot. The building, which is believed to have been a cattle barn, is dated back to 1810 but Richard and I agree that is it most likely older. The local architects have done a truly elegant job of renovating the building and enhancing its character.
Rathfinny is planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and a small parcel of Pinot Gris. There are nine different clones of Pinot Noir and six of Chardonnay, some Champagne and some Dijon, and all are picked, pressed and vinified separately. Mark and the team are particular fans of the Dijon Pinot Noir clones because of their exceptional fruit and flavour quality. There has been some replanting's on the estate already, as Richard explained, they can lose up to 8% of vines after planting, usually due to roots not finding their feet properly, hitting flint and losing their hold.
Rathfinny, despite of all its state-of-the-art equipment, still feels like a farm. There is a relaxed but focussed atmosphere, confidence, and a family vibe. A lot of thought has been made to ensure the estate blends in with the landscape that is enjoyed by so many nature lovers and walkers in the area.
A quick tour around the bottling line - a little childlike pleasure Emily and I share - and then onto admire the winery. Bottling of the new vintages will be done at the end of July which will amount to roughly 360,000 bottles.
Once the grapes are harvested and sorted, they are dropped down into the production area. Some Pinot Noir will be dropped whole bunch directly into tanks, and the rest will be dropped into one of the Coquard presses; Rathfinny own three 8 tonne presses and one 4 tonnes. The pressed juice is fed, aided by gravity, through pipes into the stainless-steel tanks and the first fermentation commences. To be sure no oxygen is present during fermentation, the custom-made steel tanks are pumped with nitrogen gas before being filled with the grape juice or must. This technique ensures the wines obtain their vibrant fruit characteristics. With my fascination for the intricacies of wine chemistry, I could not control my urge to quiz Richard on a rather high-tech piece of kit lurking behind him. In 2018 Rathfinny purchased an electrodialysis machine after spending some time familiarising themselves with this technology through a French contractor. The electrodialysis machine is used for tartrate stabilisation in winemaking and works by applying electrical currents which attract ions (molecules). Inside the machine are membranes that the wine passes through and which trap the 'unwanted' ions (molecules). The use of electrodialysis in stabilisation is a substitute for bulk chill systems, it is more energy efficient and much faster. Without this process some wines can develop tartrate crystals in the bottle over time - which are not harmful but unwanted. The use of electrodialysis is definitely cost efficient in comparison to the cost of energy used for chill filtration however, the initial outlay cost is a brain numbing figure and the reason that many wineries do not have access to such technologies.
After the first fermentations of the separate varieties and parcels is complete the wines are tasted, and blending commences. Final blends are then bottled with additional yeasts and sugars and sent to rest. Secondary fermentation begins. Riddling, the process of slowly turning the bottles to allow the sediment yeast lees to fall to the neck, can be a labour intensive and time-consuming process. With Rathfinny's riddling machine - aka gyropalette - the process is usually complete within ten days. The bottles then make their journey upside down along the disgorgement line, the process of removing the sediment collected during riddling. Once the sediment is removed the wines are topped up with a little dosage and fitted with their final cork and cage. Rathfinny's vintage sparkling wines are a minimum of three years old when released for white and two for rosé.
Mark and Sarah are cutting no corners here and are investing heavily in their project. It is a labour of love with the aim of producing three quarters of a million bottles of Sussex Sparkling each year. One day, we're sure, it will be considered quite normal to hear a fellow guest ordering 'a glass of Sussex' in smart restaurants and wine bars in cities in every continent!
With our hearts and minds full of information and cleansing sea air, we head to the tasting room to admire the leafy vines while enjoying the fruits of their labour. At Rathfinny they produce a Classic Cuvee
, Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir
, Rose Sparkling
and three still wines under a different label, Cradle Valley. They have also created a dry Vermouth which I am rather keen to get my hands on. On this visit we tasted the 2016 Classic Cuvee, which is a new release to their collection, and the new vintage of Blanc de Noir. I am always hit by the salty, fresh quality of these Sussex Sparkling wines, which I now associate as the 'Rathfinny trademark', and the lingering elegant fruit flavours. A truly calming end to our wonderful tour, as we sipped and chattered about the growing quality and market of English Sparkling Wine.
Awash with serenity we drove back over the hill and away from the Rathfinny Cellar Door. A pause for reflection as I jumped from the car to admire the view and breathe deeply once more the invigorating sea air. Lunch was calling and our appetite had been gently awakened...
Rathfinny Classic Cuvee 2016
91% Pinot Noir, 8% Pinot Meunier and 4g dosage. A beautiful soft, peachy, rose gold colour with aromas of wild rose, red apple, cream, delicate cherry/cherry blossom and that characteristic Rathfinny salty note. A full foam with slightly more vibrant, charged bubbles than the 2015 vintage. A long finish with notes of pastry and cooked apple. Great ageing potential.
To find out more about Rathfinny or to organise your own visit, take a look at their website